The Spectators of Violence

by Taylor Hunsberger

Trigger warning: The following piece discusses rape and domestic abuse. These topics may be potentially triggering for victims. 

Art by Jenn Solo

Art by Jenn Solo

Jessica Jones is a superhero turned private detective who lives in present-day hell's Kitchen, New York City. Her villain, Kilgrave can command victims to do whatever he wants, which he uses to rape Jessica. Jessica is a survivor who is given agency in a world of media that does not always allow for this. Jessica stands alone not only as a landmark in doing work for women, but also as a landmark for doing justice in representations of sexual violence as portrayed by popular culture. Superheroes are at the forefront of pop culture at this current historical moment, so the use of this platform to expose these ideas is crucial.

Scholar Susan J. Douglas critiques the warrior women of the 90s, in her piece “Warrior Women in Thongs.” Her main argument centers on the idea of women taking on masculine characteristics of power, but still upholding unrealistic beauty standards: in order for women to be powerful, they must pay in one way or another. Their bodies are still being sold to a male audience and Douglas goes on to also argue that “despite feminism, male approval still matters” (92). Where Jessica differs from Xena and Buffy is that she acquires this masculine form of power, yet she does not need to be objectified in order to keep it.

Another scholar, Sarah Projansky makes the argument in her book Watching Rape that the many representations of rape in media are often used in tropes that further victimize the women characters who experience rape. She acknowledges that rape scenes exist “…both to challenge rape myths from a feminist perspective and to contribute to the existence of violence against women in media culture” (96). Visualizing rape is a way in which the survivor or victim is objectified by that violence and it becomes a source of pleasure rather than doing feminist work.

Jessica Jones also exists in the same world that allows for the maiming and “fridging” of women characters. This term originated as a result of the violence against women as a method of shock value or the furthering of the plot that is focused on men in comic books. (Hanley). Although this is a relatively modern term, it is not a new concept. Jessica exposes what is actually being done to these female characters by virtually raping and violating their bodies. It is important to acknowledge this context because out of such a varying span of escapist superhero media, Jessica stands alone in the work that the show does. Jessica is a fully formed hero character who battles PTSD and alcoholism. We see her struggle after surviving assault; however, this assault does not completely define her character.

With the revival of the cultural phenomenon Twin Peaks, there needs to be a discussion about the heralded original series from the 90s. Twin Peaks, if you don’t know, is a quirky, yet horrific, detective crime drama from the 90s that centers on the murder of teen queen Laura Palmer. The show lasted for two seasons but was cancelled, leaving the series on a mysterious cliff hanger. Don’t read ahead if you don’t want spoilers! In the middle of season two we are told that Laura had been raped and murdered by her father who was under the control of a demon named BOB. A charming detective, Dale Cooper, is at the center of this mystery and we are left with a scene that questions whether or not our beloved FBI agent has been overcome by BOB as well. Beneath all of the coffee, donuts, and dramatic romance lies a horrific story of sexual violence against young women.

With Peaks, Lynch uses a network television platform to use the fantastic to expose family violence. This is iconic of Lynch’s canon in general, but putting it on TV places it out in the open for a wider audience. Diane Stevenson writes in her article “Family Romance, Family Violence, and the Fantastic in Twin Peaks” that “Surely the reason that Lynch approaches the subject ‘fantastically’ has to do with the fact that…we still lack a settled language that would enable us to talk about these things ‘realistically’” (Stevenson 72). By inserting the parallel universe of the Black Lodge and a collection of mythical spirits, Lynch is able to create a guise and lead the audience to engage in an otherwise impossible narrative to tell. This is the same tactic that Jessica Jones is using in the current historical moment, but where Jessica’s narrative does justice in its approach, Lynch fails to critique this violence or give any agency to the victims in the world of Twin Peaks. He may be using the fantastic to expose family violence; however, at the same time, this fantastic element lends itself to be used to excuse the men who perpetuate violence against women. We need to think of these together as part of one larger cultural context in the discussion of violence against women as portrayed on television.

Though Jessica does relevant work for women, she is, yet again, a white woman hero. Women of color continue to be left out of this narrative as if they do not also experience violence. In the show, Jessica is forced to kill Reva, the ex-wife of her boyfriend Luke, who also happens to be the only black woman on the show. When Kilgrave tells Jessica to kill Reva in a flashback that we see multiple times, he uses the exact phrase “get rid of her.” Jessica then punches Reva who ends up dead in the middle of the street due to impact. This sequence and its multiple appearances throughout the season indicates that this is the narrative for the black woman in rape narratives. Her story is left out and she is erased. When Jessica “gets rid of her,” we see whiteness win and a black woman is dead. It is not clear if Jessica’s treatment of people of color is meant to be critique or if this treatment is part of systematic racism in media which is a problem that continues to need addressing. Jessica may be step one in giving survivors of assault a voice in popular culture, but there needs to be more done in representing all of those voices, not just the white cis-gendered ones.

Taylor Hunsberger is a recent graduate of Muhlenberg College with a double major in theatre and English and a concentration in women's and gender studies. Last summer she received a grant to begin research on the representations of gendered violence in popular culture. She presented her work at the LVAIC Women’s and Gender Studies Conference and the Simga Tau Delta National Conference this past spring. Outside of academics, Taylor is an actor, singer, songwriter, poet, performance artist, and stage manager. Her poetry was published this past spring in Muses, the literary magazine at Muhlenberg College. Along with her pursuit of a career in the arts, she hopes to continue freelance writing about the topics she is most passionate about: gender in media and the performativity of fan culture.